Psychics, Sadness and Mystery in Assayas’ Personal Shopper

It’s no surprise that death is devastating for those in mourning. Missing loved ones who have passed on comes in many forms but most of us would confidently say that faith (or lack thereof) aside, we don’t really know what happens to our soul after the physical body ends. In Personal Shopper, we see one woman’s struggle with the death of her twin brother and her belief in the afterlife. It brings to light deeper questions about life and death staged before the backdrop of Paris, the fashion world, and its trappings.

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) works for a self-centered celebrity and socialite Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) as a personal shopper. Her job is to find the latest and greatest in high fashion and bring it back to her famous employer since her high profile makes it impossible to shop anonymously. Maureen has also recently lost her twin brother Lewis to a heart defect she also suffers from. His surviving partner Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz) wants to sell their house, but Maureen who is a medium, insists that Lewis will send her a sign from beyond, so she spends a few nights in his crumbling house waiting for him to appear. He was a medium like her, so her determination is fueled by his once stronger psychic abilities and their vow to make contact from the other side. When she does contact the spirit world, she also receives mysterious text messages topped off with an unexpected murder that stops her in her tracks. Maureen’s quest for answers becomes more confusing, leaving her in a state of shock and floundering for answers.

Kristin Stewart as Maureen waiting for a sign.

Personal Shopper is a horror, a film noir, a psychological thriller, and a ghost story. It is all of the above and none of the above at the same time, embracing and defying genre. Director Olivier Assayas created a film that’s in a class of its own using art, history and old school paranormal beliefs with 21st century technology and lifestyles to illustrate Maureen’s search for her brother’s spirit. It’s this artistic take that kept me riveted despite the slow burn pace.

Assayas captures Maureen’s loss well, and he also conveys the loneliness of this technological age we live in with Skype and smartphones being key methods with which she communicates. Even when she is with someone physically or electronically, she is separate, guarded, or unsure; from her shopping excursions to her Skype dates with her boyfriend. The smart phone as a thing of necessity in this day and age to stay tethered to this world also becomes an agent of isolation and intense paranoia when Maureen pleads with a nameless messenger behind the texts to reveal themselves.  Assayas takes a now commonplace device and gives it a more otherworldly, sinister presence.

Personal Shopper is also a lesson in how Maureen grieves. She throws herself into her work even though she flat out hates her fashionable job, but Paris is her main connection to her dead brother so she stays there as she waits for a ghostly sign, not ready to let go.  The world of fashion is a fleeting one; rarely delving deeply into the reality around it. Her psychic abilities seem to be stunted as she moves between posh shops in London and Paris to serve Kyra in this superficial arena. It shows how she herself seems like a spirit as she is lost between real life, the supernatural, the fashion world, and her uncertainty with what she believes and how she is perceived. Her only moment of self-awareness comes when the mysterious messenger asks her to do something forbidden, and she taps all too briefly into her desires in her confused and somewhat desperate state. It’s a strange moment in the film, but it makes sense as her character searches for a right fit, so to speak, in environments that while not hostile, aren’t hospitable to her either.

The look of the film is really beautiful. Yorick Le Saux, the cinematographer for Only Lovers Left Alive, does a wonderful job capturing the contrast of the dingy streets and stark sophistication of Paris. He is skilled at making the most of each setting, representing streetscapes and boutiques in their truest and most tangible forms. For anyone that has visited the City of Lights, you’ll feel nostalgic for its frenzied energy.

My only issue lies with the text messages and some of the ensuing actions asked of Maureen. While I really enjoyed these suspenseful interludes and there is definitely a point to them, they were problematic with some details that still remain unclear when the storyline makes a sharp turn. Stewart’s stellar performance as a tortured, uncertain and lost character written for her by Assayas, evokes a surprising amount of emotion that overshadows any inconsistencies in the narrative however, as you watch this poor soul wait for her brother to tell her something, anything as proof of an afterlife.

Personal Shopper is an artistic take on a ghost story and focuses on one woman’s uncertainty when mortality comes into question. See this film for it’s beautiful photography, a haunting performance from Stewart and an interesting albeit imperfect story about grief and the afterlife.

(Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie.)

Longing and Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch is an interesting man.  I don’t claim to be an expert on him by any means, but  films like Stranger Than Paradise and The Limits of Control left me loving the feel and scope of his vision, getting an almost artistic buzz after watching them.  My favourite Jarmusch film hands down is Ghost Dog:  The Way of the Samurai.  This quiet film brings a sense of beauty and zen to the assassin, and he does the same for the vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is an innovative musician who is also a reclusive vampire.  He lives in a secluded, tear-down of a house in the tear-down city of Detroit, and with the help of a human Ian (Anton Yelchin) for music supplies, and a jumpy hospital lab tech (Jeffery Wright) for his blood supply, he is able to exist with little disturbance.  Melancholy seems to rule his life of late, making him contemplate his existence and his disdain for humans, or “zombies” that are destroying the world.  Eve (Tilda Swinton) is his wife and at the moment, she lives in Tangiers.  She is a sensual being, soaking up books and atmosphere, and seems to be content with getting “the good stuff”, or choice blood, from non other than the 16th century poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe himself (John Hurt), who has survived the ages as a vampire.  They are all satisfied with sipping their blood from tiny sherry glasses because they are far too civilized to hunt their human meals.  After a disturbing video chat with Adam, Eve comes to Detroit to check in on him. Adam and Eve appear to the outsider as the coolest junkie couple you will ever meet, wearing shades at night to shroud themselves from the everyman.  They are the ones that if you engage, you just may be in a heap of trouble, but their seduction is irresistible.   They proceed to chill out in true vamp style and live an introvert’s dream; reading, debating philosophy, playing music, getting their blood fix and sleeping in a heap like sophisticated feral junkie children, until Eve’s bratty sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up, throwing a wrench in their well oiled machine of solitude.

Sound boring?  Perhaps a tad Anne Rice-y and formulaic?  Well it’s not.  Jarmusch is known for making films of a slower, more contemplative pace and what he creates here is a sweeping and moody anti-horror movie.  With a beautiful colour palette and the comfort of cluttered sets, he wraps you in a cocoon of an introverted, isolated world that only the characters and the viewers understand. But make no mistake.  There are plenty of intellectual inside jokes and lots of dry humour that still makes this a classic Jarmusch film.

His “casting” of Detroit as a backdrop was genius for this particular story.  It mirrors the life the vampire couple used to have, a life of innovation and progress that becomes antiquated as the world forgets and moves on.  Adam has fans that seem to personify the hipster fueled gentrification, a tainted blood that tries to pump life into an ancient body.  It’s a world where the “zombies” defile artifacts of a glorious past.  Pay attention to the scoring too, but not only because Jarmusch wants you to.  The director and musician creates Adam’s spacey compositions with his band SQURL, and the action is accented by the beautifully enchanting and dreamy sounds of the lute from composer Jozef van Wissem, who won best score for the film at Cannes in 2013.

And I must talk about Tilda Swinton.  I think you all know how much I love her.  She is like a gorgeous alien who can morph into any character.  From her style to her attitude, she is truly mesmerizing.  Her waifishly sleek Eve was calm and calculating; glowing on the screen like an alabaster phantom.  Tom Hiddleston was lazily lethal and brooded with a Jim Morrison-esque intensity, and I loved the reference to Christopher Marlowe, whom John Hurt played so well.  Honourable mention goes to Anton Yelchin as Ian, who exuded a sweet naivety and obedience that amplified Wasikowska’s predatory and petulant Ava.  The costuming and sets were beautifully done, from the rock star vampire tousled hair to the retro-modern wardrobe; from Eve’s walk-up in Tangiers to Adam’s old school recording studio complete with beautiful vintage guitars and a faded red velvet divan fit for any aging rock star, and all of this captured by D.O.P. Yorick Le Saux who meticulously frames each scene to give us precise shots that are pleasing to the eye.  This is a thinker’s vampire film, with nary a CGI effect, save for some fangs and fast hands.  If you want to step outside of the typical  vampire box, I’d suggest Ganja and HessKiss of the Damned, and Only Lovers Left Alive for an interesting triple feature to experience indie vampirism at it’s best.

As someone who has had to examine her own mortality more than once due to very unfortunate circumstances, Only Lovers Left Alive was very poignant for me.  Their desire to stay under the radar and not bring any attention to themselves as life marches on is betrayed by an ultimate longing, bringing them together to steel against an impending doom.  When faced with the question “Is this all there is?”, Adam and Eve give us solace in knowing that yes, maybe “this” is it, but enjoying the moment before it becomes a memory is our mortal goal.

[Orignally published on Rosemary’s Pixie]